Photo: Delegates attending the fifth thematic session of the General Assembly for the Global compact on safe, orderly and regular migration. Credit: UNIS Vienna. - Photo: 2017

Experts Explore Pathways for the Global Compact for Migration

By Julia Rainer

VIENNA (IDN) – “Smuggling of migrants, trafficking in persons and contemporary forms of slavery, including appropriate identification, protection and assistance to migrants and trafficking victims,” was the title of the Fifth thematic session of the UN General Assembly hosted on September 4-5 by the United Nations Office in Vienna (UNOV).

The event aimed at supporting the inter-governmental process designed to lead to the adoption in 2018 of a global compact on safe, orderly and regular migration – a goal agreed by the member states when adopting the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants in September 2016.

Louise Arbour, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for International Migration, and Secretary-General of the session, opened the discussion with a strong appeal to the member states.

“As we embark in discussions that will at times have a legal or technical character, we should not lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with immense human tragedies. Even dramatic media reports do not do justice to the scale of the suffering produced by human trafficking and contemporary forms of slavery or to the depth of despair that puts thousands of women, men and children in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers.“

The upshot of discussions was that although the crimes of human trafficking and smuggling are interrelated and often interlinked, a clear distinction is necessary in order to develop effective policies, measures and protection for those affected. Nevertheless, these offences are often used interchangeably especially in the rhetoric of politicians who are sometimes taking advantage of the confusion in the public discourse in order to lobby for extremely strict or anti-migrant policies.

Human trafficking is generally understood to refer to the process through which individuals are placed or maintained in an exploitative situation for economic gain. Trafficking can occur within a country or may involve movement across borders. Women, men and children are trafficked for a range of purposes, including forced and exploitative labour in factories, farms and private households, sexual exploitation, and forced marriage. Trafficking affects all regions and most countries of the world.

Smuggling on the other hand is primarily seen as an offence against the state although it can also be connected to abuse, violence and exploitation in some cases. The main goal of the smuggler however is the facilitation of passage and irregular entry to a state in exchange for financial compensation.

While there was consensus on these two general definitions, the controversial representation and narrative of the smuggler as an actor was intensely discussed by independent experts and member states.

Gabriella E. Sanchez, Senior Research Fellow at the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute, and Mark Shaw, Director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime criticized that there is a high reluctance especially in the policy discussions to embrace critical research on how smugglers are represented.

The limited, but poignant evidence concerning for instance migration flows at the U.S.-Mexican border shows that smuggling is widely carried out not by transnational criminal networks, but is community based, involving friends and families or migrants themselves with a high number of women and elderly as key actors in some steps of the facilitation.

The majority of smugglers in these cases neither have a criminal record nor are there reports of the use of weapons or physical injury towards the migrant. In general it can be said that in many cases violent or abusive behaviour by the smuggler would harm his or her reputation thus affecting the credibility and furthermore the “business”.

To deal distinctively with the person facilitating the journey is of highest importance as, like Shaw stated, “smugglers have become a potent vector and while they may not create the initial impetus for irregular movement, they often amplify the market, they influence who moves, what routes are used and what destinations are reached. And both positively and negatively they impact a lot upon the safety of those who use their services.”

In line with many of the images transported by the media, Arbour said that she was appalled “by the reports of migrants’ lives endangered by unscrupulous smugglers forced to travel in overcrowded smuggling vessels or abandoned to die in deserts or in the holds of trucks without food or water.“

Nevertheless, she also pointed out the hazards arising from harsh border control measures as well as some interception practices, which make the journey even more dangerous.

In 2017 alone 3400 migrants have died along migratory routes, a fact that highlights the importance of humanitarian assistance and especially the rescue at sea which is an obligation under international law. Arbour insisted with the member states that “saving lives must be the absolute priority along with better international coordination and cooperation to address smuggling and trafficking.“

The question of migrants’ safety led to one of the core issues of the discussion, namely that the smuggling “industry” is driven by a strong demand, a demand that is fostered and exacerbated by the current migration management worldwide.

Although the relationship between the migrant and the smuggler is considered consensual and often built on trust, the power in this constellation is distributed unequally. This imbalance can be worsened by harsh border control measures, policies hindering people to exit a country and the current lack of safe legal pathways for migrants.

As Mark Shaw explained; “where a migrant is afforded few or no safe or legal options for movement and demand for movement is particularly great the power of the smuggler is high, the prices that smugglers can charge are high and the care that they are required to take of the migrant is reduced.”

According to research, the overall criminalization of irregular migration as well as harsh counter-smuggling measures that mainly focus on the prevention of entry can be counter-productive.

These measures constitute obstacles for migrants aiming to seek safety in a dignified manner, therefore forcing them to rely on the help of smugglers. Therefore the dynamics of the crime are simply changing thus making smugglers resort to more dangerous routes and further jeopardizing the migrant.

Over the long-term, the lack of regular migration channels, high visa fees, lengthy bureaucratic procedures and increasingly restrictive entry requirements combine with the demand of cheap labour in services in countries of destination particularly in informal and poorly regulated labour markets to continue to channel migrants towards irregular entry, Arbour agreed.

Finally through these efforts migrant smuggling is not prevented, as people in desperate circumstances will continue to move despite these barriers. Such policies can result however in the stigmatization of migrants and foster prejudice and xenophobia towards them in the receiving societies – particularly in the face of rising right-wing populism across Europe.

“The fundamental dilemma in European migration policy is that it wants the refugee convention but not the refugees. And it is possible to have it both ways by blocking access to European territories for people who might have good reason to seek asylum and might be granted refugee status,” emphasized Jorgen Carling, Research Professor of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

As such policies are clearly undermining international law as well as human rights obligations, added Carling, it is the duty of politicians and law enforcement agencies to take effective measures in the interest of those having a right to protection. [IDN-InDepthNews – 15 September 2017]

Photo: Delegates attending the fifth thematic session of the General Assembly for the Global compact on safe, orderly and regular migration. Credit: UNIS Vienna.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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